Readers’ Matzav: Nightmare in Newark for Yeshiva Bochur


newark-airportDear Matzav,

I’d like to share with you a letter I just wrote to the Department of Homeland Security after an outrageous experience we just had coming into the United States from Israel. I do not know what benefits it will yield us personally, but I feel it incumbent upon me to share this with my fellow Yidden. Please beware.

Dear Sirs at the Department of Homeland Security,

On December 10th, my 20-year-old son, Moshe, was returning home from a visit to Israel. He flew Continental Airlines, flight #91. The flight went uneventful. Some time before landing, a stewardess (whose name my son does not remember) handed out forms to be filled out before entering the United States, as is customary. Anybody who had something in his possession that needed to be declared was to do so then, on the form.

Moshe thoughtfully asked the stewardess if the pound of pumpkin seeds he had with him needed to be declared. Her answer was, “Oh, they’re okay.” Clearly, this was not to be understood as “Write them down.” So he followed her orders, and left the form blank.

Upon entrance into Newark Airport, Moshe – a totally innocent A+ college student – was “randomly” pulled aside to have his bags checked. When Officer J. Rutledge “discovered” some seeds, he, outrageously, fined him $300, an exorbitant fee for something which he was specifically told he may bring in. The officer made up some lame excuse that they were suspicious of some “elephant’s worms.”

How absurd! Is this where our country has taken us? Do we have so few problems in our midst that we could frolic in abstract suspicions of the innocent? If the suspicion was well-founded, I can understand, perhaps, confiscating this innocuous bag of seeds. But to fine him, as a first time white-collar ‘offender,’ a $300 ‘violation’ fee, for which he did, indeed, inquire about and was, consequently, misinformed, is, simply stated, an injustice.

In the name of true justice, we ask of you to please rescind this fee. Not only did he not do it “knowingly” (as stated on the notice of violation form), but, once again, he did inquire and was misinformed. Please show your true red white and blue colors and stand up for absolute truth and justice! This young man is clean!


Mrs. L…. (mother of Moshe)

{ Newscenter}


  1. My nephew had a homemade tuna sandwich in his handbag, which he had taken along for the flight, and did not list it. He too was fined $300. They are not specific regarding what to list and then conveniently fine these young, naive passengers.
    I guess this is the first step in the U.S. fight against terrorism.

  2. is not an employee of the govt or homeland security, she has no better idea than the guy sitting next to him. So “asking” is not an excuse. Still, i believe general procedure would’ve been to confiscate with a warning, the fine seems too high.

  3. MOM (Mother Of Moshe), I think that it’s a Department of Agriculture issue of not bringing in any organic material from foreign countries, like fruits, vegetables, etc.

  4. I think calling this “a yeshiva bachurs nightmare”, is pushing things a little too far. The stewardes’ don’t know anything about U.S. laws regarding customs. It happens to be, that anything that grows from the ground (including seeds)must be declared as stated openly on the customs form. I think you’re making this into a big deal when it’s just a inconvenience. By the way your A+ son of a student doesn’t now have a criminal record.
    Mrs. L, do us all a favor and don’t try calling the USA Govt. antisemites because of your son’s careless mistake.

  5. i truly understand how you feel. Just remember for the future, anything questionable, just write it down on that paper, and ask later! We had some leftover cut up fruit, (which was for the plane ride) and we did not know if it had to be declared. we made a question mark on the paper by ‘fruit’. While we were waiting for our suitcases, a police and dog came around, dog got excited and jumped around our baby stroller. cop smiled and said, ‘dogs like babies and usually go nuts by carraiges…’ and then started walking away! dog didn’t want to budge, so cop asked us ‘do you have anything to declare?’… so we told him about the cut up fruit.. he asked us to see our paper, we gave it to him and he made a big red circle on it… BOY was i glad we made that question mark, it made us look honest and not liars…. they did stop us, and asked us for the fruit. they did NOT open any of our bags, and let us go… BH!!
    lesson i learnt: be upfront and completely honest, it works!!! although, in your sons case, the lesson learnt was don’t ask sterwardesses, ask the main guys… Good Luck, hope you get your money back!

  6. If he is 20 years old, why is his mother writing for him? He should be writing his own letter. Or, at least signing the one that others help him draft.

  7. sorry- I disagree. you alays mark down anything that might be questionable.
    You know these guys are looking to make money any way they can, so I am sure if it was marked down they either would not have bothered him about it or let him just toss it in the garbage if they said it was no good.
    Just the fact that he even thought to ask about it should have been enough to write it down.

  8. Pumpkins are a fruit and plant product. As a result they are illegal to be brought into the US based upon USDA regulations. Customs caught him and fined him. Unlikely to be dismissed.

  9. This is what happens when PC Liberals take control of Government agencies! I would sue every person that said boo to your son that day! We have got to take our Country back! Many years ago, I was coming back from Yeshiva in Montreal & I had with me some tzeida laderech which had a few apples in it. They threatened to fine & arrest me! Hatzlacha Raba

  10. It is truly wrong that he was charged the #300. But RBS”O don’t call it a “nightmare”. Looking at your headline, I thought Rachmona Litzlon what took place with him. Exageration of a problem does a disservice. Thank you.

  11. This happened to our daughter too. She tried to fight it politely to no avail.
    You should also know that they will stop him in the future too because of this incident. they have stopped my daughter since to check.

  12. Nightmare? The nightmare is that he doesn’t read the form that he signs. The forms say food, plants, etc must be declared. Would he ask the stewardess what bracha to make on something? So why ask a stewardess about the form.

  13. Wrong department. It was probably Customs, not Homeland Security.

    BH you lost $300 to shtuss and didn’t spend it chas vesholem… Fight for it back anyway, but address the appropriate people.

    By The Way: Cabin crew on the aircraft are not in anyway authorities to say. Your son may be an A+ college student, but try to have him learn some street smarts.

  14. While the stewardess might have said it is okay to bring them in, she is not a person of authority at border control, so her word can’t be taken as the final word.

    I do agree their “fine” was crazy though.

  15. Why did your son rely on a stewardess? Her job is to distribute the forms. She is not an INS agent. If your son read the customs declaration (question #11 – I believe) he would have seen that he’s not supposed to be bringing in food. By signing his name to the declaration he is fact acknowledging that he indeed has no food with him. I feel sorry for your having to shell out $300 and for your son to have gone thru the ordeal, but that’s the law.

  16. You are mixing up three departments, Customes, Dept. of Agriculture and homeland security. The stewardess was correct that seeds do not need to be declared for customs. But if your son read the forms he would have seen that all plant and meat products are prohibited. The customs people are on the lookout for these things as part of their job as border entry point. They are prohibited by the dept. of Agriculture. They have sniffer dogs smelling all the bags looking for plant products. Homeland security has nothing to do with this. I do not know how you can resolve this but the TSA for sure is not the right address.

  17. I agree that a $300 dollar fine is outrageous! The mother didn’t mention in the letter that surely her son looked like a frum yid and that’s why the officer fined him!!! but she should have said so, they are always afraid when you show their anti semitism. Oy vey, this is what happens when liberals like Obama are in office!

  18. The letter was address as such because that was the address to whom the violation fee was to be sent to, for all those questioning smart-aleks!
    Moshe currently has no access to computers (back in “Brisk”!). But, yes, I could’ve /should’ve written it as if it was he. In fact, when I wrote about this incident to Continental Airlines themselves I did speak in first person.
    As far as the stewardess not being the one to ask, I beg your pardon! If she is capable and responsible to administer the forms, she should be capable and responsible to handle such benign simple questions.
    The only reason I asked to have this posted was to save even ONE YID similar agmas nefesh. Did you ever hear of “areivus”?!
    I care about my fully extended family!!!

  19. To BMG: it is indeed a nightmare to see the miopic-viewed bretheren out there! Can you figure any reason in the universe why the details of the letter might have been written up in a way that the receiver of the letter might understand it better? Have you no heart in the matter that another Yid might need care in the United States? Where is your soul?! You are a living nightmare!

  20. . Comment from BMG
    Time December 29, 2010 at 12:08 PM

    Why would a A+ student be returning from a VISIT to Israel in middle of the Zman???? That in itself is a nightmare!

    tghe REAL nightmare is that you are judging a boy who has returned to the states in the middle of the zman. Do you know this boy at all to judge him? perhaps his sister is getting married . H,ey for all you know hes coming home because he isnt well. stopp with your dumb accusations

  21. Yes – I was also surprised at BMG’s lack of astuteness. Obviously, if a bachur comes home in the middle of a zman, it’s probably for a shidduch, medical reason or something else that most ppl don’t advertise…! Please think twice before accusing others.

    And Mother, yes – I can identify with your aggravation since a relative of mine was recently fined $100 for an apple that he had forgotten to declare! I think the reason you’re writing the letter is because you will be footing the bill – I doubt you’ll make your son pay…

  22. The Customs form is

    Question 11 clearly asks:
    11. Mark an X in the Yes or No box. Are you bringing with you:

    a. fruits, plants, food, or insects?
    b. meats, animals, or animal/wildlife products?
    c. disease agents, cell cultures, or snails?
    d. soil or have you visited a farm/ranch/pasture outside the United States?

    The parents should ensure that their son understands the plain written English on the form itself.

  23. The only nightmare is that a 20 year old isnt capable of reading and understanding a form, knowing that pumpkin seeds grow from the ground and needs his mommy to write a letter for him, when he is so clearly in the wrong anyway.

  24. On the form, which is not overloaded with small print, it says quite clearly that ALL plant products are banned. Failure to read documents before he signs can be a disaster, and this boy is very lucky that for only $300 he is learning the lesson, instead of getting a prison term or losing a lot of money!

    Sorry for your loss, but save your outrage for real issues.

  25. For the life of me I can figure out this womans complaint. THe child did have pumpkin seeds right? they are plants right? he knew he had them right? so he gets fined. I guess the complaint is with the flight attendent for not knowing the rules or for saying its “theyre ok” when she didnt know, but what did the homeland security do wrong.
    btw all the misused quotation (“randomly”, “dicovered”) marks make it seem like you suspect that the they purposfuly pulled him aside and knew that he had illegal products, do you think the flight attendent tipped them off? do you think your child was the victim of some bizzare conspiracy?

  26. Reb Yid @1:11,

    Flying to EY is about $1500+ r/t these days. I fail to see how your freedom to travel, the laws of supply and demand (setting the airfare cost) and violating US customs law (because one cannot read) at a port of entry will force all of us to go on welfare.

  27. Ames means Ames especially if it is a formal declaration with a signature!!!!
    These agents are doing their job to protect our agriculture industry. Just one insect or egg can cause havic on one or many of our crops and forests and cause millions if not billion of dollar losses to farmers. This is not something to be nonchalant about.


  28. Paying $300 for an innocent mistake by your 20 year old son? How about dumber mistakes by my son-in-law that cost my husband a lot more than that?

  29. No. 32 Mommy
    If thats all you had in mind, you could have written this same letter simply as follows.
    ” My son returning to the USA from Israel was misled and did not report sunflower seeds that he had. He was given a rediculously high $300 fine. This is a warning to all travellers, NOT to take along any fruits or vegetables including seeds. They will avoid alot of Agmus Nefesh”.
    DONE. Without ranting or raving making your son feel like this poor sheep being led to the shechita. Sorry but thats not what you were doing.

  30. Dear Momma Comment #32:
    Your warning is very appreciated, helpful, and well placed,Thank you — BUT
    You could have written the same L’toeles Harabim that is listed on Matzav about free calls to Canada.( two stories after this one) Simple, dry, without hysterics.

  31. It’s sorrowful to see how much negativism can be sensed from such a beautiful feature. Pessimism and criticism breed nothing good. My sympathies for those of the above who have could see bad even in the good! SHAME ON YOU ALL! Kudos to a mom who cares about others’ potential loss!

  32. I’m jaded.
    When I saw the title “nightmare”, I figured he must have lost his gemara….
    All such news articles are exaggerated nowadays to such levels that nobody takes their possible issues seriously.
    We teach our children not to “cry wolf” – perhaps the adults should be educated in the same way.

  33. Do you ask the mailman tax questions because he brings the form to you?

    It’s a simple form. Fill it out honestly and the worst thing that can happen is they say “that isn’t allowed in, we have to take it”.

  34. I think it will be many a long year before “Mrs. L…. (mother of Moshe)” will even dare to think about publishing another comment on this – or any other – website!

  35. I had the same thing happen. White seeds and watermelon seeds are not allowed because of bugs. I was also told that in addition to the $300 fine,I now have a federal charge against me on my records.

  36. After all is said and done……… Ah yidishe Mamme iz ah yidishe Mamme! Ah Mamme vaz vaynt for ear kinder, ah mamme vaz trocht vegen alle kinder foon alle Mommez! Thank you heilige Mrs. L………May you only see nachos and gezunt from all your kinder!

  37. IY’H klal Yisroel should experience no more nightmares, but it’s hard to imagine what words you have left for true tragedies and disasters, now that you’ve used “nighmare” for this. Please, cut the hyperbole.

  38. I feel for this boy and his family. Money is tight.

    In the scheme of things, we need to feel for the family and then get on to more pressing matters.

    This boy wasn’t abused, he was misinformed by someone who held no official capacity. If a garbageman told me I could park in front a hydrant, the cop is still justified in giving me the ticket. The law is the law. The kid could have read the piece of paper he was handed and stuck to the rules. He made a mistake and we’ve all learned from it.

    But this isn’t a nightmare. Can we please stay focused on positive stories and things of real importance?

  39. I just read recently that standard procedure as per a memo to the border police, is that when entering Canada, ALL FRUM BUSES are now stopped and searched, because the incidence of finding non-declared items was just so unacceptably high.

  40. i had the same problem with the nuts and seeds from israel.i got callled over for no reason……they opened my suitcase, and found 1 little bag of sunflower seeds!! i wsas disgusted after a long trip, so i begged and pleated. they took the seeds away from me, put them straight in the garbage and since it was my 1st time there was no fee. B”H it is a totally unfare system!